I’m standing outside of the newly opened Robot Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy. “I don’t know,” says David Telfer, the Academy’s co-owner, “I just wasn’t born to sit in front a computer all day. I couldn’t handle it.” He pauses. “Estate planning, tax law. It was a good job. I worked hard to get it. It just, it made me feel like a robot,” he laughs. Four months out of UCLA Law School, fresh off of passing the bar exam, and saddled with 110,000 dollars in law school debt, David Telfer handed in his resignation at a prestigious law firm.
The economy seems to be tanking, the stock market is flailing up and down. At a time when most people are consolidating their positions, trying desperately to hold on to what they have, Telfer, who is 29, decided to gamble everything. Right now, he’s sitting eating a burrito outside of his newly opened Robot Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy in West Los Angeles, part of the Wander Braga Fight Team. Holding the four dollar burrito in his hand, Telfer points to his lunch and says, “well, it tastes just as good as the law firm lunches.”
“No more steak tartar,” I ask?
“No more sitting still for ten hours a day.” He is an interesting character, a native southerner, with a Jewish mom and Catholic dad, Telfer is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. “Portuguese,” he says, “was a good idea. Refs don’t listen when you yell at them in English.” When he speaks he exudes a kind of inclusive natural charisma; not the kind that makes him seem better than other people, the kind that makes people around him feel better. Telfer, a purple belt on the edge of brown, began training BJJ while studying abroad in Brazil in 2003. He trained with Team ROC in North Carolina before moving to Los Angeles to attend law school at UCLA. He has bright blue eyes, a boxer’s nose, and small scars on both cheeks. When I ask him where they come from, he tries to shrug off the question. I ask him again, “I was shot in the face.” At the age of 17, David was shot in the face at point blank range. The bullet went through his forearm, in one cheek and out the other. Most of his top teeth are prosthetic.
“Really?” I ask. He opens his mouth to show me. “Man…” I say. At a bit of a loss for words. “You would never know.”
“Good doctors.” He’s much more eager to talk about the Robot BJJ studio behind him. Ask him why he quit a job at a prestigious law firm in tumultuous economic times, to scrimp and save by eating burritos instead of taking paid vacations and eating ham wrapped duck covered in caviar, or whatever they eat on those types of vacations, and the answer comes with no hesitation. “Tim Peterson.”
In 2005 Telfer enrolled in a fledgling UCLA Jiu Jitsu class that met twice a week; a basic rec class that offered just a glimpse of Jiu Jitsu. The class had a small enrollment, and no one met to train outside of class. “At the time,” says Telfer,”“it was more of a hobby then. It’s everything to me now. The group of people training really drew me in.” Through the enthusiasm of Telfer and a core group of friends, the class began to expand into a club that practiced after hours and on weekends. More and more people started coming to the mats, but the group lacked a technically skilled teacher, someone proficient in method and teaching.
In steps Tim Peterson. In 2006 the college sophomore Peterson took over as teacher of the UCLA club. Peterson began training with Wander Braga at age 15 when Wander was still teaching classes out of LA Boxing. Wander, the undefeated MMA fighter, who mentored Gabriel Gonzaga and gave him his black belt in BJJ, has shaped Tim’s style and continues to be Robot’s principal mentor (Robot is an affiliate of the Wander Braga Fight Team). Tim is very light, but he plays a lockdown and smash game, smothering you at every turn. Under Tim’s guidance, the club rapidly took on a different, more rigorous feel. Membership quadrupled within a year, and UCLA classes had to be expanded from 2 times a week to 5 times a week to accommodate the demand. “More importantly,” says Sam Chen, a founding member of the club, “people began to fight more intelligently.”
“Tim fills in holes in people’s games. People come in with deficiencies in their games. Tim assesses them quickly and makes concise correction.” Like Telfer, Tim seems to come from several different worlds. Tim is half white, half Vietnamese. He is very angular looking, all corners and edges, almost like a robot. One day while I was visiting the new Robot academy, David shot on Tim and hit his head on Tim’s hip when Tim sprawled. Tim’s hip drew blood from Telfer’s head. “Everybody knows Tim has bones like razors,” sighed Telfer, while soaking up the blood on his head. Tim is often very quiet in social situations. He stretches and yawns around groups of people lazily, but I get the sense that he is watching people’s psychical motions very intently. He is polite, but he enters and leaves conversations when he chooses. Tim trains 6-7 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, with the intensity of someone who feels pulled by a calling. Over the past several years, he has been obsessively fine tuning a detailed curriculum; an 80 page thesis on Jiu Jitsu mechanics, theory, and instruction- specifically designed for a three month beginners’ class. “Designing this curriculum was trial by fire,” Tim says. “At UCLA we had 50, 60 new students per quarter. We had to figure out a way to convey key concepts, fundamentals, in logical way without sacrificing nuances.”
I ask around for a non-fighting related anecdote about Tim, and one surfaces. “Well,” says Lee Choi, another member of the robot crew, “Ya know, Tim’s a very good looking guy. One day he was shopping at Whole Foods when Mena Suvari actually hit on him!”. “He likes Magic,” yells out another founding member, Eddie “Spaghetti” Lee.
When time came for Telfer and Peterson to graduate, the core group training at UCLA felt more like a family. “No one wanted to let go of what we had built there,” says Telfer, “It was too special to give up. It was a very smart, caring group of people, and we couldn’t imagine training under anyone other than Tim.”
“You better watch out man,” I joke, “Throwing the word “caring” around in BJJ circles, people will think you’re soft.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we smash.” Says Telfer, leaning towards me threateningly. The group also seems to be particularly well-rounded. The core group contains several doctors to be, a lawyer, and a… rocket scientist! “By the time I graduated, a lot of us felt Jiu Jitsu was more than a hobby. It’s a lifelong vocation, part of who we are. We didn’t want to go to another studio, we wanted to continue training under Tim,” admits Brian Attiyeh, the rocket scientist. So, about four months ago, Telfer and Tim put their balls on the table. Telfer quit his job as lawyer and Tim went full time as a BJJ instructor and competitor. They looked around and found a martial arts center well situated in West LA that wanted to offer Jiu Jitsu to their students. The studio is one of the largest facilities in all of Los Angeles, clean and well laid out. Tim gestures proudly. “We just put in brand new Tiffen roll up mats. Nearly 2,000 square feet of mat space, men and women’s locker rooms with showers.” He gestures to the mats, “Back at UCLA we were always bartering with Tae Kwon Do guys, Pilipino Stick fighters, women’s self defense course for mat time. We never had enough mat time.”
“You should have challenged them to a fight for it.”
“Oh, we wanted to wrestle them for it, but no one seemed willing.” He grins. Telfer adds in “This place is our, our, heart you know. There are a lot of great academies, and we like to go roll with them and invite them over, but none of them feel like Robot and I honestly can say that I’ve never found another instructor like Tim. Our goal now is competition. Until now, we’ve been a submission team. Now we’re starting to focus a lot more on the competitive game. ”
“Before we go any further,” I say to Telfer, “Why do you use the name Robot?
Why Robot?” He shrugs. “You should let Tim answer that one.”
Tim is inside, standing on an exercise ball, about to start a beginner’s class. The class begins with rigorous conditioning, moves into drills, Tim teaches some fundamental techniques and then emphasizes the importance of the “why.” “Look,” Tim says to the class, “ I can teach you phrases that you can use only in certain situations, or I can teach you the underlying grammar and vocab, so that when you get into an unfamiliar situation, you can produce your own sentence.” Tim speaks softly, but people listen as he stresses the fundamentals. “Look guys, it’s important to study all the big names, and have well rounded games, but at the end of the day, this is a cross choke academy. When you watch the big names, what are they tapping you with? It’s not an omaplata, it’s not a brabo choke, it’s a straight choke from the mount.”
Students roll for 20 minutes. As the white belt and blue belts roll, several purple belts move through the room, giving advice and correcting form. I am impressed by how cohesive the feel is. Where most Academies begin with a few high belts and a large percentage of white belts, Robot started off with a brown belt, four purple belts on the edge of brown, and ten very strong blue belts. They coach the freshman class of white belts. Robot’s community lives up to the common maxim, Tudo Dentro, Nada For a (everything in, nothing out) with the whole functioning even better than the sum of its parts. Over the speakers, Bloc Party, an Indie
“We have this nice rooftop here,” says Telfer as he gestures to a broad flat concrete rooftop that looks out over West LA. “This is a good place.” A man looking his own dream in the face, fighting for it like he was on the mat. The sun is setting. “We’re thinking of doing some yoga and flexibility training out on the rooftop soon. We tried to figure out what the going rate was in the area, then bring it down just a little bit, offer a few more things. We may not be the largest academy, but we want to train holistically. We’re bringing in sports psychologists to help with the head game to achieve peak performance. We train very intelligently.” He flexes his grip on his collar. “ We’re still old school though. You get in there and fight on your first day. You get uglyfaced.”
Telfer pauses and stares at the concrete rooftop and past it into the cityscape. “ We want this place to be, to be smart. The smartest training program, and to be, um, human. No one should feel any sacrifice of identity to come here and fight. Everybody gets to fight. Men, women, kids. Be yourself here. Don’t feel like you have to maintain some sort of fighter’s stereotype. Everybody gets to fight.. If you are a musician, and you train here, bring your guitar and play us a song afterwards. If you are a policeman, or a fireman in the neighborhood, come in, we’ll teach you the basics of self-defense, help to make you safer.” He rubs the scar on his cheek absentmindedly. “To feel secure, safe. It’s important. Mentally as well as physically.”
Telfer points to a Gucci ad across the street. “There are these buildings everywhere you know. Billboards, advertisements, fear of failure, fear of not making enough money. All these competing forces. I just want people to be able to come here to fight, clear their heads. Be part of a human community. Everything here came from a community. This isn’t a McDonalds. It’s not even a Whole Foods. It’s a family farm.”
For a team called Robot, the studio seems strangely anti-robotic. It’s 11 pm. Class has been over for an hour, and people are still hanging around laughing, stretching, and watching funny videos on a laptop. I finally catch up with Tim and ask him about the name. He stares at me for a second.
“Yeah, Robot. Hmmm…” He leans down to stretch for a second. “A lot of the symbols used for Jiu Jitsu players are animals or animalistic humans fighting each other on a mat. To me, Jiu Jitsu has always sought to produce technical fighters that will beat less technical fighters. You don’t have to be an animal or macho man to play technically; in fact, a robot is the best symbol for the philosophy of Jiu Jitsu because it does not matter the exact size or strength of the model, what matters is the program inside.” He strokes his rectangular chin for a second. It strikes me from observing him; this type of reasoning makes sense for a man who seems to want to not just learn Jiu Jitsu, but to be Jiu Jitsu, to embody it.
Telfer jumps in. “Tim likes robots. Big, friendly robots without prejudice, ego or malfunctioning biology. I guess there’s something futuristic about it.”
I sincerely wish them luck. The world may not know it yet, but they’ve convinced me. I have the feeling Robot may be the future of Jiu Jitsu.
To see robot online, go to www.robotmethod.com .I particularly liked the funny videos
To see Robot in person, go to 11870 Santa Monica Blvd (between Bundy and Barrington), West LA, 90025.